By Kay Rios
DENVER –Nokero Solar is lighting up the dark corners of the world with its innovative products. And with approximately 1.3 billion people living without access to electricity, Nokero’s solar light bulbs offer an affordable way to get cheap, functional lighting.
Many of those living without electricity resort to kerosene, which can be deadly to burn and, according to the International Energy Association (IEA), kills more than a million people each year. Nokero offered its first solar light bulb in 2010 providing an easy option to kerosene for $15.
The latest design, the N180-Start, is more affordable, says Steve Katsaros, chief inventor and CEO of Nokero Solar.
“Most people in developing countries make two to four dollars a day, so a $6 light is more attainable. Since kerosene can take up to 25 percent of a household’s income, when they start using the N180-Start, they realize the breakeven point very quickly.”
Based on savings from not buying kerosene, that averages out at about three months.
“It’s a big purchasing decision for them. They are buying something all at once where, with kerosene, they can buy in portions and 50 cents will get them through a day or two. The behavior of saving isn’t there. That’s where the N180 Start came in and why it’s named that. It’s so critical to start people on the road to renewable light sources.
“Nokero’s products are cheaper, safer, and better for people’s health,” says Allison Archambault, president of EarthSpark International. “When you compare that to kerosene or kindling, people save a lot of money and they aren’t breathing in the fumes or starting fires when the kerosene falls over.”
Archambault, whose organization works in Haiti where 7.5 million people are without access to electricity, puts the need for Nokero’s products in perspective.
“The context is the need for high-quality energy services and products for people living without access to electricity,” she said. “There are a variety of ways to get access to electricity. One is extending the grid, one is building micro-grids and the other is building off-grid lighting solutions, and they are all important.
“But the thing about off-grid lighting solutions is that they are the fastest thing to roll out. Nokero has been developing various options without a grid.”
Nokero has also developed the N222-Power, which combines a high-output solar lamp with a USB mobile phone charger and sells for $45.
“About 700 million people who live without electricity have mobile phones and spend 50 cents a week charging their phone,” says Katsaros. “So they can use the N222 to charge the phone and save that money.”
The N222 gives out about six hours of bright light (50 lumens) per day and can charge most cell phones or battery-powered devices via a USB port. It also has varying light intensity, interchangeable color lenses, grid-charging and a modular base stand.
The lamps are designed for a five-to-10-year lifespan. The rechargeable batteries last from two to five years and can be replaced at a reasonable cost, he says. A fully-charged battery can result in eight to 16 hours of light, depending on the model and the time the unit is charged in the sun.
The idea for the company and its products came from Katsaros, who graduated from Purdue University with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. He also studied at the Bard Center of Entrepreneurship (now the Jake Jabs Center) at the University of Colorado. In 2003, he developed a motorized bicycle wheel and his company, Revopower, won first place in that year’s Business Plan Competition at the Bard Center.
Then, in January of 2010 when Katsaros was a patent agent for a law firm in Fort Collins, inspiration hit. He was thinking about people living without electricity and came up with the idea for a simple, solar-powered light bulb.
“I came up with the idea in January of 2010 and sketched it out,” he said. “Four days after putting the first sketch on paper, I filed the patent. Within a month, I quit the law firm and started the company. I had already been practicing patent law for a manufacturing company in Asia, so I engaged them to build a prototype and the tooling.”
Five months after that initial drawing, the product tooling and samples were ready.
“We launched on June 10 and this crazy thing happened: CNN ran a six-minute piece on us on June 16. It went international, so we quickly got a huge number of incoming requests from all over the world. It was like a rocket ship.”
Nokero (the name originates from the phrase, ‘no kerosene’) now has its lights available in more than 120 countries and Katsaros is working to spread that even farther.
“In Fiji, we sell to a chain of hot bread bakeries that have created a location in their store for our products. In Haiti, we sell through a chain of clean energy stores and, in India, through a company that has 7,000 door-to-door sales guys.
“I’m very excited about Kenya, where we have an experiential marketing group distributing through women’s groups that have over one million women members. And we just sold 100,000 pieces to an oil company that gave them out as part of its corporate responsibility program. It’s a patchwork of things that are happening.”
It’s all working, Katsaros says, adding that there will be more to come in the future. “We’re just trying to make appropriate technologies for the base of the pyramid.”
Jake Jabs Center at UC Denver
By Kay Rios
DENVER — After winning first place in the Business Plan Competition at the Bard Center (now the Jake Jabs Center for Entrepreneurship) at the University of Colorado-Denver, Steve Katsaros has gone on to light up the world with his social enterprise effort, Nokero Solar.
And it is exactly this type of spirit, innovation and success that the Center supports and celebrates, says Madhavan Parthasarathy, the Center’s director.
“We’ve had literally dozens of successful businesses coming out of the competition, and Nokero is a very good example of the kind of businesses that come out of our center and our competition. It’s a very good example because it’s helping poor people around the world live better lives. The business and the nature of the product makes it one of our favorite children.”
The Jake Jabs Center is part of the CU Business School.
While Katsaros won with an entirely different product, that, too, was in the social enterprise arena. “The idea that he originally got funding for was a good idea and moderately successful. It was a little inexpensive, internal combustion engine that fit on the front wheel of a bicycle and turned it into a motorcycle. It would help people in China and other areas who couldn’t afford a motorcycle.”
Winning the competition provides the self-confidence to take risks and look at new options and can be a springboard to other ideas, Parthasarathy says. “We have nonprofits that have won prizes in the competition and we’ve had dozens of for-profits come out of it as well. We have many success stories.”
The Business Plan Competition — held every June — encourages the creation of new businesses and is designed for early-stage companies. It recognizes the most outstanding plans with more than $50,000 in cash and in-kind awards.
“It’s bigger and better than ever,” Parthasarathy said. “We’ve held it for 12 years, and this year we received $10 million from Jake Jabs so we can now expand it beyond Colorado to Montana and Wyoming.”
New rules for the competition will be published in January.
The center also offers more than 14 accredited MBA/MS graduate-level courses as well as a non-degree Certificate in Entrepreneurship. In addition, it hosts a business incubator offering all the resources necessary to build a successful business.